Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Food and Dining Out The Minimalist Way

“Hands off my food!” you say, when I suggest that you can trim an extra 5% off your grocery and meal costs.  Yet, those savings can be so subtle that you hardly will notice the difference.
I have a penchant for lists, it seems, and the process of “going lean” on your meals requires another list, or, at least, a record.  But it is simple.  All you need to do is to compile a total cost for your in-home meals, and a total cost for your dining out costs, for a period of six months.  This can be done easily, if you always pay for these items with credit or debit cards.  I recommend two subtotals (one for each section) and an overall combined total.  Divide by six to get your typical monthly costs for in-home food items and dining out events (including alcohol). Your target costs will be 5% less than the total average.  Some months, you may exceed slightly, but by closely monitoring every cost, you can compensate in other months.
The first series of suggestions focuses upon away-from-home meals.
When ordering alcohol (either at a lounge, restaurant or for a social evening at a friend’s home), alternate between an alcoholic and a non-alcoholic beverage.  At a typical cost of $4-7 per alcoholic drink ($2-3 for non-alcoholic), four drinks per evening, one evening per week out, you will saving $48 per month.  To save an additional $3-4 per week, consider having your first alcoholic drink at home, instead of at the event.
By eliminating one meal away from home per month, you will save $40-50 per couple.  Instead of always dining at fancy restaurants, mix a fast food place into the mix.  Sometimes, these meals can even be less expensive than eating at home.  Drop one cup of exotic (or regular) coffee from your purchases each week, or substitute one regular coffee for the usual latte.
Many restaurants and entertainment venues offer discounts of 10-15% for groups of 10 or more, so party with larger groups of friends occasionally, and arrange, in advance, for the group discount.  Use coupons and specials frequently.
The second series of recommendations evaluates ways to adjust your food buying habits to cut costs.
Consider buying on Mondays. These are slower days, and often, culled produce or meats are available at great discounts, yet still are fresh.  Saturday evenings see the array of grocery items depleted, but there may be great deals available, too.  Buy products that are in season.  This does not just apply to produce.  Turkey, ham and fish all have better pricing at specific times of the year.   Produce can be frozen and stored for several months, if prepared properly.  During the off season, frozen vegetables and canned vegetables generally offer the best prices.
While there is no doubt that “buying local” offers great benefit to area producers, there is some doubt as to whether the policy is financially beneficial to consumers.  Certainly, mass-produced products are less expensive per unit, but there is an abundance of evidence that there are losses in nutrition  benefits in many cases.  The prevalence of contaminated food recalls attests to the risk of “assembly line” food production.  If you opt to cut costs here, be certain that you know the tradeoffs involved.
Bulk buying and participating in buying groups or cooperatives is a common strategy for cutting costs, but these options are not always available to urban residents.   Instead, look to buying multiples of items when those multiple unit purchases result in savings.  A corollary to this principle, though, is the need for caution when buying “family size” units, versus smaller sizes.  Many times, the 3-pound tub of margarine, for example, is more costly per unit than 1-pound tubs.  Comparing toilet tissue purchases is even more difficult, since single versus double rolls, or 12 versus fifteen rolls per pack do not give accurate means for evaluating value.  Each manufacturer puts different numbers of sheets per roll in their product, making apple-to-apple comparisons tough to do “on the fly.”  Even more confusing is that each sheet is a different size, or may be one, two or three ply. Watch cost per unit, and know specifically what each unit may be.
Now, I move to suggestions for trimming costs at home.
Start by cutting back on serving size.  I used to use one chicken filet per meal, regardless of the size.  Before long, I found that one-half a medium filet was adequate, and any trimmings left over could be used in stir frys. Then, I consumed only one half a baked potato at each dinner, instead of a whole one.  A half cup of vegetables is sufficient for the average person, instead of a full cup.  The list goes on.   At breakfast, for example, substitute a half slice of whole wheat toast for the usual full slice of white toast, and feel just as full.
Substitute one of your large afternoon snacks for two small ones, consisting of a handful of nuts and a piece of fruit, instead of a pastry, specialty coffee and another side dish. Cut your home coffee costs by saving excess prepared coffee and storing it in the refrigerator.  Use a reusable coffee k-cup (Keurig brand name), instead of the throwaway one-coffee unit. Bring your own snacks to work, and save money, in addition to enjoying snacks that are not readily available on the job.
Prepare many meals in advance, and freeze them.  Use culled fruit and overripe bananas for baking, or in composite desserts.  These produce items often are available at 75% off regular prices.
While this discussion of how to trim 5% from your food budget is far from exhaustive, it provides a very workable guide to saving money.  And where can this money be directed?  Anywhere you choose, from holidays to charitable giving.  Even though your food expenditures still will provide you with filling and nutritious meals, the ability to direct another 5-10% of your budget to worthwhile areas will prove to be fulfilling, instead of just filling! 

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